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Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson's Case against Morton Smith

  • Scott G. Brown (a1)

Stephen C. Carlson's The Gospel Hoax sets out to validate the long-standing suspicion that Professor Morton Smith, late of Columbia University, forged his famous discovery of aletter of Clement of Alexandria, which quotes from a longer(“secret”)Gospel of Mark. This academic folklore has been passed on like an esoteric tradition since 1975, when Quentin Quesnell called on Smith to make the manuscript of this letter available for forensic testing in order to rule out the possibility of a recent hoax. Quesnell had difficulty substantiating his concerns. In his article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, he postulated that a modern scholar might have devised the letter as “a controlled experiment” in order to examine how scholars react to new evidence. Yet the manuscript of this letter, which Smith found in 1958, was inscribed on the last pages of a seventeenth-century book that purportedly was kept in a locked room of a monastery in the Judean desert. What modern forger would leave his creation there and gamble that someone would discover it in his lifetime? For this scenario to seem at all plausible, Quesnell needed to imply what he personally suspected, namely, that Smith forged it himself for this purpose. Accordingly, Quesnell described his hypothetical modern “mystifier” as someone who shared Smith's abilities, opportunities, resources, and interest in what people make of the document.

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My thanks go to Allan Pantuck and Birger A. Pearson for their helpful suggestions.
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Harvard Theological Review
  • ISSN: 0017-8160
  • EISSN: 1475-4517
  • URL: /core/journals/harvard-theological-review
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